CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Jay Rockefeller traces the close relationship he helped West Virginia develop with Japan to three years when he lived in a "wood and paper house in the middle of a rice field with four Japanese students."
Rockefeller took a break after finishing his junior year at Harvard University to attend the International Christian University in Tokyo.
"I learned the Japanese language, both the northern dialect and the southern dialect. I reveled in it," Rockefeller said. "You couldn't graduate from the university unless you were fluent in both English and Japanese. I went there only 12 years after the Second World War ended."
He had visited the country with his parents in 1952 and 1955, but he wanted to experience it on his own.
"To take off at the end of your junior year and disappear for three years, nobody did that back then. I didn't want to graduate as a half-baked preppie. I wanted to have some fire in my belly," Rockefeller said.
As governor and U.S. senator, Rockefeller led a dozen trade missions to Japan, playing a key role in attracting more than 20 Japanese companies to invest billions of dollars and create thousands of jobs in West Virginia.
On Wednesday, Rockefeller will receive the Grand Cordon of the Rising Sun Award during a ceremony at the Japanese Embassy in Washington, D.C. The Japanese government announced last fall that it would give Rockefeller the award "in recognition of his significant contributions to strengthening and promoting both the economic relationship and mutual understanding between Japan and the United States."
"When I got to Japan in 1957, I learned their language and culture non-stop for three years," Rockefeller said. "For me, it was a life-changer."
The Grand Cordon is the highest award given by the Order of the Rising Sun, created in 1875, and is one of the highest honors bestowed by the Japanese government. It recognizes those who have achieved prominence in international relations, among other fields. Rockefeller's father, John D. Rockefeller III, won the award in 1969.
Earlier Wednesday, Discover the Real West Virginia Foundation -- a group created by Rockefeller in 1993 to help existing industries in West Virginia and to diversify the state's economy -- and the West Virginia Development Office will hold a luncheon for Rockefeller in the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington.
After Rockefeller returned from Japan, he finished his degree at Harvard in 1961. He then worked for the Peace Corps in the Philippines and for the State Department in Indonesia. In 1964, he moved to Emmons in Kanawha County as a VISTA volunteer.
"VISTA is all about America -- 'The Other America.' Back when I was doing it, you couldn't work in the state in which you were born," Rockefeller said. "You had to go to some other state, where everything would be different."
The widely traveled young Rockefeller won a seat in the House of Delegates two years later, became secretary of state in 1968 and was elected governor in 1976 and 1980. Rockefeller won the first of five elections to the U.S. Senate in 1984. When he retires next January, he will have held his seat for 30 years.
While serving in public office, Rockefeller created business relationships with more than 20 Japanese companies, beginning with Wheeling-Nisshin Inc. in Follansbee in 1986.
"The company was a merger between Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel, and Nisshin Steel of Japan," Rockefeller said.
"When it opened, they wanted to raised the West Virginia flag, the American flag and the Japanese flag. But the town council in Follansbee voted against raising the Japanese flag."
Rockefeller compared that to the day Dr. Shoichiro Toyoda visited Putnam County in 1996 to open the Toyota plant in Buffalo.
"The entire county let kids out of school. Lined up along roads all of his way in, school kids and other people were waving Japanese and American flags."
But luring the Toyota plant -- the high point of Rockefeller's efforts with Japanese businesses -- didn't come easy.
"We had a 10 to 12-year courtship with Toyota," Rockefeller said. "They had a big plant in Georgetown, Ky. We got them to buy a huge tract of land from American Electric Power for a plant they expanded six times. They never stopped expanding."
Rockefeller believes local workers play a key role in attracting Japanese businesses.
"The West Virginia worker has a sense of duty, fidelity and respect -- very much like what you find in Japan. They found it out when they opened the plant in Buffalo.